The speech below was delivered by the Executive Director, Sulemana Braimah, when he spoke at the Change Speakers Forum V on July 8, 2023, held by Accra-based Joy FM on the theme: Media and National Development: Premise, Promise, Practice. In the speech, he evaluated the role of the media since Ghana returned to its Fourth Republic three decades ago. He concluded by calling for urgent reforms in the media and presented recommendations that he envisages can bring about the needed reforms.
After 30 years of our democratic journey as a nation, there couldn’t have been a better time to evaluate the role of the media in our governance and development agenda.
So, my submission this morning will be an attempt to diagnose the Ghanaian media within the context of 30 years of our democracy. I will do so from three broad perspectives.
First, and by way of introduction, I will touch briefly on the premise or contextual background to media and governance in Ghana, which may have informed the expansive guarantees of media freedoms and independence in our 1992 Constitution.
Secondly, I will look at the Ghanaian media landscape over the last 30 years of our democracy, and whether or not the media have played the role expected of them in the democratic dispensation.
The third area of my submission will be a diagnosis of some of the challenges that limit the media’s role and effectiveness in Ghana’s governance and development efforts.
And I will conclude by sharing some reflections on key reforms that are required to help strengthen the media’s Fourth Estate mandate and to enable them to help rather than hurt our progress as a nation.
As we may be all aware, the media have always been a critical actor in Ghana’s political history. From the days of colonialism to our independence struggles and post-independence governance, the media have often been key agents in our national development discourse.
As part of our independence struggle, for example, Kwame Nkrumah established the Accra Evening News in 1948 to support the propagation of the independence agenda. On the eve of independence on March 5, 1957, Nkrumah established the Ghana News Agency, and right after independence, he established The Ghanaian Times in 1958 and then acquired The Daily Graphic from its foreign owners, The Mirror Group, in 1962. These steps were taken as part of a comprehensive policy to harness the information arm of the state to build a viable, united and cohesive post-independence nation-state
In recognition of the critical role of the media in governance and national affairs, every government since independence, whether military or civilian, has had a media policy. The difference has always been in ideological positions on what the role of the media should be, and under what conditions the media should perform whatever roles are envisaged for them.
Military regimes have often sought to compel the media to act as propagators of government development agenda and viewed any watchdog actions by the media as acts of sabotage, betrayal and anti-national development that must be repressed and punished.
Under democratic regimes, however, there has always been an attempt to have a liberal landscape that would enable the media to play their watchdog role and serve as the Fourth Estate of the realm.
Coming into the Fourth Republic, therefore, the framers of the 1992 constitution were undoubtedly of the view that Ghana’s democracy will thrive better, if our governance was anchored on an environment in which information is freely disseminated; opposing views are shared and debated; and political consensus sought and mobilised.
The makers of our constitution were certainly also convinced that what was needed for the attainment of an enlightened society was a free, independent, pluralistic media ecosystem rather than a repressive media environment that prevailed at the time the constitution was being worked on.
It was deemed that such a free media landscape was also necessary for the attainment of the cardinal national aspirations outlined in Chapter 6 of the Constitution, designated as The Directive Principles of State Policy.
It is, therefore, not surprising to find an expansive scope of media freedoms and independence expressly guaranteed under Chapter 12 of the 1992 Constitution. Indeed, various Articles and clauses of Chapter 12 of the constitution provide that there shall be no censorship; no impediments to the establishment of media; no license required for the establishment and operation of media; no governmental inference or control in the operations of the media; no editor and publisher shall be punished or harassed for their editorial views; among other freedoms.
Even though there are limitations to the freedoms on grounds of national security, public order, public morality and respect for the freedoms and rights of other persons, as contained in Article 164 of the constitution, there is no doubt that the drafters of our constitution genuinely wanted a free, independent media landscape.
But the constitution does not grant media freedoms and independence just for the sake of it. It imposes a constitutional democratic duty on the media by stating that, the media shall be free to uphold the principles, provisions and objectives of the Constitution, and shall uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people of Ghana. So, when the media and journalists act to hold governments and appointees accountable, they are simply performing a constitutional duty.
That takes me to the second area of my submission, which is to look at the media landscape following the guarantees of freedoms, and the critical issue of whether and how the media have played the roles expected of them in our democratic enterprise 30 years on.
Since the inception of the Constitution in January 1993, the media landscape in Ghana has, unsurprisingly, witnessed very significant changes in terms of the number and types of media, diversity in ownership and geographic spread.
The broadcast and online media sectors have particularly witnessed the most dramatic changes. Prior to 1993 for example, there was just a single, state-owned, government-controlled radio and television network operated by the Ghana Broadcasting Co-operation (GBC). 30 years on, there have been dramatic changes.
The latest available figures by the National Communications Authority, indicate that the number of radio stations on air has increased from just one in 1993 to 513 by the end of 2022. The number of TV stations on the air during the same period had also increased from just GTV to 117 stations. In fact, these figures may certainly have increased by now.
In terms of the print media, even though there were a considerable number of publications besides the state-owned Ghanaian Times and Daily Graphic, the number of newspapers and magazines in the country has also witnessed a significant increase since 1993.
The online media space has also been growing dramatically. According to global Internet World Stats, there were just 30,000 internet users in Ghana as of the year 2000. The number increased to 10.1 million by 2017 and 16.9 million by June 2022.
The ever-increasing penetration and access to the internet and mobile phones, have also aided the growth of technology-driven media outlets. There are currently dozens, if not hundreds of news websites, hundreds of personal blogs and web-based TV channels, and dozens of applications for optimising and sharing news across national borders.
New media technologies, particularly social media sites and applications such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, have also expanded opportunities for crowd-sourced content creation and individual news production by citizen journalists.
The growth and development of the media sector were further boosted by the repeal of the criminal and seditious libel laws in July 2001 and the passage of the Right to Information Act in 2019.
It is, therefore, not surprising that despite a recent sad backsliding, Ghana’s press freedom record remains one of the best on the African continent.
Overall, therefore, there appears to have been a symbiotic relationship between the gradual growth of Ghana’s democratic ethos and the expansion of the Ghanaian media industry as may have been expected by the framers of the 1992 Constitution.
With what has been said, the other vital question to ask is whether the expanded media landscape has translated into a better and more robust execution of the duty imposed on the media to safeguard the objectives of the Constitution to hold governments accountable to the people of Ghana. My response will be yes and no.
First of all, there is no doubt that the Ghanaian media have made some significant contributions to our governance’s democratic evolution. The media have remained central to stakeholder advocacy for good governance, public education and for the inclusion of citizens’ voices in public discourse.
Over the years, investigative journalists have exposed wrongdoing by duty-bearers in nearly all sectors of our society. Development challenges have been brought to the attention of leaders, and citizens have always relied on the media to seek the attention of authorities to their development needs.
Through the media, certain potential public and private sector crimes have been averted. One can go on with the positive contributions of the Ghanaian media. So yes, the media have and continue to play important roles in our governance and development agenda as a nation.
But despite the positive challenges, the conduct of some journalists and media houses, has tended to hurt rather than help our democratic advancement and national development.
Emboldened by partisanship and other interests, it has become very common to hear or see people baselessly abuse others on radio, TV or online. Fabrications, outright lies and unsubstantiated allegations in sections of the media are perpetrated with disdain. As I said sometimes ago, sometimes some actors on some media networks act as if to suggest that the laws of Ghana guarantee both media freedom and media recklessness.
There is evidence to the effect that nearly all the reckless conduct in the media and by the media happens on media organisations that are openly partisan with partisan owners.
From June 2020 to May 2021 for example, the MFWA monitored and recorded 1754 incidents of ethical violations on 10 Accra-based local language radio stations. Just three of the stations, which are very partisan with partisan owners namely Power FM, Oman FM and Accra FM, accounted for 83.4% of the ethical violations. Such unethical violations and recklessness are continuing at even an alarming rate now with all the potentially dangerous consequences.
Also, ahead of the 2020 elections, the MFWA monitored the incidence of indecent and pro-violence content on 60 radio stations across the country. On this too, just five out of the 60 radio stations, which are known partisan stations, namely Oman FM, Wontumi Radio, Ash FM, Power FM and Accra FM accounted for 74%of the incidents of indecent expressions that were recorded.
Tied to the problem of unprofessionalism and sheer recklessness is the problem of the proliferation of misinformation and disinformation in the media space, especially on social and other internet-based media outlets.
Connected to the above problem are other challenges that limit the media’s role in our democracy and development aspirations.
First is the problem of attacks, threats and other abuses against journalists: Over the years, several journalists have come under attack and harassment often perpetrated with impunity as offenders often go unpunished. While such attacks have always been present, we have seen an escalation in the last 5 years.
From 2017 to 2020 for example, there were 74 incidents of media rights violations. These violations have continued beyond 2020 and have the tendency of nurturing a culture of fear and self-censorship among journalists. In such circumstances, only courageous journalists and media organisations can do the kind of journalism that have the potential to hold the government accountable to the people as required by the 1992 Constitution.
The second problem is the non-transparent allocation of broadcast frequencies: The allocation of broadcast frequencies has over the years been made a partisan affair. When the NDC is in power frequencies are issued to party folks and the same happens when the NPP is in power. The consequence has been that over 80% of legacy broadcast media in the country are owned by partisan folks. The problem is that nearly all such media outlets exist, not for the business of journalism, but to serve the parochial interest of their owners and their political parties. Practices at such media outlets are, therefore, guided by partisan interest rather than journalistic ethics and national interest.
The final and perhaps the biggest issue is the absence of an effective media regulatory mechanism. Right from the onset of the 1992 Constitution, it was clear that there was a need to fashion out an appropriate framework to help regulate the kind of broadcast media environment that the Constitution espoused.
So, in March 1993, which was just three months after the coming into force of the 1992 Constitution, the late Justice D. K. Afreh, argued that “The institutional framework within which independent broadcasting stations will have to operate is yet to be set up. Obviously, the Media Commission will have an important role to play in the establishment and development of such a framework. The measures it will take to ensure the establishment and maintenance of the highest journalistic standards in the mass media … will affect the quality of services provided by the broadcasting services.”
Justice Afreh went on to argue that “in the end, it will be the responsibility of Parliament and the Media Commission to strike a proper balance between order and licence, between the constitutional aim of non-governmental interference and the preservation of the cultural, social and moral values of the nation.”
Unfortunately, 30 years on, a legal framework within which the hundreds of radio and television stations should operate in Ghana now, is yet to be established. There are no laws regulating radio and television broadcasting standards in Ghana even as the sector keeps growing and getting complex by the day.
Apart from the legal lacuna within the broadcasting space, there is also the problem of inefficiency and incapacity on the part of the National Media Commission (NMC), which is the media regulator. Thirty years after its creation, the Commission has become powerless, under-resourced and moribund.
At the moment, one can safely argue that the NMC is hardly living up to its obligation of taking “all appropriate measures to ensure the establishment and maintenance of the highest journalistic standards in the mass media, including the investigation, mediation and settlement of complaints made against or by the press or other mass media,” as required of it under Article 167(b) of the 1992 Constitution. In fact, decisions of the Commission (the few times it does so) are now sometimes disregarded with impunity by media organisations and journalists against whom decisions are made.
My submissions this morning can only lead to the conclusion that there is an urgent need for major reforms in Ghana’s media sector in order to enable the media to play a crucial role in our country’s democratic evolution and national progress.
I will, therefore, conclude with the following recommendations for reforms in no particular order:
Need to urgently reform the National Media Commission:
The purpose and vision behind the creation of the National Media Commission (NMC) were noble and progressive. Over the years, the Commission may have played a critical role in giving full effect to the constitutional requirement for the insulation and independence of state-owned media. But 30 years on, the time has come to go through a legislative process to reform the NMC to make it fit for purpose.
- Such reforms should include a reduction of the number of Commissioners to a Maximum of 7 with a full-time Chair and deputies just as EC.
- Granting of powers to impose enforceable sanctions on erring recalcitrant
- Adequately resourcing the Commission
- Need for a broadcasting regulatory framework: At this stage, the country desperately needs a broadcasting law to regulate and sanitise the broadcasting sector. The absence of a broadcasting law over the years has made the sector prone to abuses and lack of commitments to technical and professional standards among industry players and practitioners.
- Transparency in the allocation of frequency including the disclosure of owners of media organisations.
- Safety of Journalists: State must take and implement appropriate measures to guarantee the safety and freedom of journalists including swift investigations and prosecution of perpetrators of violence against journalists.
- Media Capacity Building: There is a critical need to intensify media capacity-building efforts to make the media more professional and strengthen their watchdog role.
Thank you very much for the opportunity to share my thoughts this morning and to our audience and viewers I say thank you for the privilege of your company this